BETHESDA, MarylandOnce again, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) faces the likelihood of an annual operating budget lower in actual dollars than the previous year. In the waning days of December 2005, Congress passed the budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for fiscal year (FY) 2006, which began October 1, 2005. Details about the budget were not available at the time ONI went to press, but, of note, the budget included a 1% across-the-board mandatory reduction for all agencies, primarily to pay for Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters of 2005. Before the budget passed, NCI had been operating for 3 months under a continuing resolution that held the agency to the same spending levels as FY 2005. [Look for a more detailed analysis of NCI's FY 2006 budget in an upcoming issue of ONI.]
Even with the expected reductions for FY 2006, John Niederhuber, MD, NCI's chief operating officer, pledged that the institute would continue funding research grants at the current level and find ways to advance its scientific endeavors. "We are not in any way giving up on our initiatives that are going to push this mission forward at a greater speed," he said at the December meeting of the National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB). "However, we need to find ways of leveraging with other governmental agencies and with the private sector."
Congress's failure to produce a budget in November came as a surprise. Both the House and Senate approved budget bills, which traditionally lump HHS spending with that of the Departments of Labor and Education. A conference committee appointed to resolve the differences between the two budget bills reported out a compromise measure on November 17 that would have provided $4.84 billion to NCI. However, the House refused to approve the conference committee bill by a vote of 224 to 209. Twenty-two Republicans joined with the House Democrats to defeat the report. "It was a pretty unusual occurrence,"
Susan Erickson, director of NCI's Office of Policy Analysis and Response, told the advisory board. "It has been 10 years since a conference report was not passed." The day after the House rejected the measure, "the Senate voted to instruct the conference committee to reconsider the bill and asked it to restore NIH funding to the Senate level," Ms. Erickson said.
Congress's final approval of funds for FY 2006 still left NCI officials uncertain about the institute's exact budget prospects. For 3 months in FY 2006, NCI operated at a budget of $4.825 billion, the amount it received in FY 2005. Noncompeting research grants and competing renewal awards were funded at approximately 80% of the previously committed levels. Funding increases will be considered when the FY 2006 budget issues are settled.
"If we got the President's budget, we would be looking at an increase of only 3%, essentially a flat budget," Dr. Niederhuber said at the NCAB meeting. However, in recent years, Congress and the President have deducted significant sums (set asides) from approved appropriations to pay for other expenditures. At NIH, for example, all its components have had to contribute funds to help finance the agency's "Road Map," its long-term planning process for medical research in the 21st century. As a result, even though NCI's FY 2005 budget represented an increase of $142 million, 3% higher than in FY 2004, mandated deductions resulted in an operating budget about $62 million less than in FY 2004.